DISCLAIMER: Due to the slightly off chance that Joss or a legal suit type person may read this and in their anger, sue, I will say that this little piece of work is for fun. The characters contained below belong to Joss, ME production, and others that I don't know. The Chinese from this story is taken from the book, Finding Serenity.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a repost of the story, O,Zhe Zhen Shi Ge Kuai Le De Jin-Zhan, from IKOLY. It is re-edited and the ending has been altered. Heart felt to thanks to the following: Didge, Valyssia, Dennis, Jay, and Thumper. They all contributed in some way and the story would have sucked lots without them. Read and enjoy. Feedback: Good, bad, whatever...I like...so leave it on here or email if you feel the urge.
FEEDBACK: To whedonistic.tendencies[at]gmail.com
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Happy Development
By Whedonist


Chapter 17 – Ni Buy Gou Ge Ni Hun Qiu

"Are you okay?" River asked, as she leaned against the back of the house next to Faith. It was Faith and herself who had taken the three to the airport but since their departure, Faith had grown sullen.

"Hey Riv, yeah. Guess so. Just thinkin' is all." Faith took the last pull on her cigarette and flicked the butt far out in front of her. Her eyes looked out over the darkened grounds and relished the warm breeze that washed over her skin.

"Then why have you been so quiet since they left?"

"I…" Faith nervously shifted her weight to her right leg trying to decide on the best way to answer. "Okay, right, so, it takes one call from good ole' Rupert to get the three of them to go running back to Ohio, which is cool 'cuz I guess now we got more info, but bein' looped in would not have hurt at all."

River let a smile play at her lips and then, deciding on a plan, grabbed Faith's hand. She pulled the willing slayer to a tree halfway out into the yard. She settled herself against the tree trunk then tugged on the hand she still held. Faith looked down to see River staring up at her with a 'what are you waiting for?' look. Plopping down next to the other girl, Faith rested her head on an offered shoulder.

"They did," said River, after a few quiet moments.

"Did what, Riv?"

"Uhm, you called it loop in. I think what you meant was tell you what was going on. They did. As soon as they learned more, they did tell you. I don't think they knew much before they called us tonight."

"What makes you think that?" Faith asked, looking up into the pensive face of her friend.

River closed her eyes and idly wished she could not answer that question. "Because they need us, like we need them. Your family has decisions to make as will mine."

Faith burrowed further into River's side and just nodded.

"Were there any big surprises with tonight's conversation?" River asked.

"Dunno, I mean demons trying to end the world, hey really old game. In fact it's so old, I wish they'd get a new one." Faith let the smile overtake her as she giggled out, "I can see it now; demons of the world uniting to bring about world peace much to the dismay of beauty queens the world over."

"Beauty Queens?" River inquired.

Faith sobered up and shrugged. "Just, ah, ya know what? Remind me to make you watch Miss Congeniality, alright?"

"Alright." River let the conversation lapse knowing both were too busy with their own thoughts. The day hadn't been that eventful, but she found herself growing tired none the less. Stretching, she nudged Faith. "I'm going to go to bed. Will you be coming in soon?"

Faith rubbed her eyes and blinked at the girl. "Sleep wouldn't be bad." She stood offering River her hand. Once the two were standing, Faith grinned. "Race ya!" And took off in the direction of the house.

River raised her eyebrows and then quickly followed the slayer back to the house.

Buffy stepped out of her walk-in closet and asked, "When did I get so many shoes? Or clothes even? How?"

Xander poked his head out of the bathroom door and smiled. "We call it shopping. You and a redhead about," Xander leveled off Willow's height with his hand, "Yay high, for a while now. Although with the new, I'm sure you'll spend your time…otherwise occupied." He shot Buffy a lecherous grin and wiggled his eyebrows.

"Hey!" The blonde turned a glare towards Xander.

"No, Buff you don't get to give me the Buffy glare. Just think. All that money you're going to save while you're, dare I say, having orgasms with the bestest bud of all that's mine."

Cocking her hip to the side Buffy crossed her arms and thought about the sense. Nodding, she grinned and said, "True. Ya know, Xand." She stalked over to Xander and pulled him from the bathroom. Slinging an arm over his shoulder, she pulled him to her and said, "You missed out, Xand. Will. Great orgasms."

The man gaped at her and blushed a deep red. Knowing that she got him, Buffy released her hold and let him go back to putting up the new shelving in the bathroom while she went back to her closet to try and make room for more of Willow's stuff. While they had both agreed that moving in to one room was a bit too soon for either's liking, they both wanted to keep the basics in both places.

Xander poked his head in to the closet a few minutes later to take in the site of Buffy sitting on the floor surrounded by shoes of varying shapes and colors. "Buff, the patch didn't seem to work. You ever think of maybe checking into a rehab clinic? You and Lindsay Lohan can bunk together then you can slip her my number."

Buffy tossed a boot in his direction and continued to sort through the mess she had created. "I think not."

"Fine be a kill joy." He rubbed the back of his neck and continued to stare at the blonde. "Hey Buff, uhm, ya know I just wanted to say, if you haven't uh, picked up on it that I'm happy for uh, you and Will."

"Huh?" Buffy looked back up mildly confused by the sudden topic change.

"Well, it's just, you two haven't made with the coming out officially thing yet. It's cool with me. I mean kinda weird in a way, but it's good. Although, if you hurt her, I reserve the right to try and kill you."

Buffy stood apart from the sea of shoes and pulled Xander into a hug, "Not gonna happen."

"That's good. Oh and one other thing, when?"

"When what?"

"When did you change teams?"

"Ah." Buffy pulled back and shifted uncomfortably for a moment before settling on an answer, "To make it easy, I didn't know what I had until I lost it. Or more, I didn't know what I felt until I lost it."

"Vague that up some more, I'm not seeing the path."

Buffy sat down on the bed and swung her feet, "Really Xand, I don't know. I mean, in Sunnydale, during the First, I gave Angel this…okay there was analogies and it was bad, but I wasn't thinking clearly then and when Will went away, then she came back. I just…well that horrible little speech I gave Angel which at the time, no sense and did I mention bad, kinda made sense. She, well, she was kinda the baker. And if the baker can't enjoy warm, delicious cookie me then, no one should."

Xander cocked his head to the side and studied the woman before him. Deciding it was best to leave the subject alone he smiled, nodded and went back to work in the bathroom. A few minutes later, he poked his head around the corner and noticed Buffy still sitting there. "So Buff, that mean's only Wills get to eat you now?"

Chaos greeted Buffy as she entered the research room. To her right, Xander and Kimmie had a wall map up of Cleveland and the surrounding suburbs that had multi-colored thumb tacks protruding from it and the two were currently arguing over another map that was spread out on the corner of the table. Willow and Dawn were both bent over a computer monitor having an argument that Buffy wasn't sure she wanted to know about. The only one present who looked semi-relaxed was Giles who was sitting back in a chair reading through a book.

Her first attempt at getting everyone's attention only garnered a nod from Giles. Setting down the tray of drinks and box of doughnuts, she stuck her middle and index finger in her mouth and whistled. The noise caught everyone's attention. Responding to the glare's being sent her way with a grin, she asked, "Alright peeps, what's up?"

"We've got a location on the demons," Kimmie offered looking over to the map on the wall.

"It's not concrete, Kim. We need more than a few guesses and one sighting," Xander warned. "We think we have their location."

"Look, Xander. I know you're good at this, but I'm telling you, our demons are there." Kimmie pointed to a green push pin on the map. "We can get visual confirmation from one of the teams tonight, but I'd bet my right arm that's where they are."

"Fine, but if not, then I get to not only tell you I told you so, but you get to be on "on-call" status for a month"

"What?!" Kimmie gaped at her boss and shook her head. The blonde stuffed her hands in her jeans thinking about the deal. "Fine, but if I'm right you take my Friday night shifts for the next month."

Scratching his chin, Xander weighed his options and looked over at the map. "Uh, fine. Send out Charlie Team tonight. Rig them with video and we'll see."

Kimmie smiled and ran out the door to go prep the team.

"Do you think she's right?" Buffy asked as she stepped over to the map on the wall.

"Probably, but I wasn't gonna tell her that." Xander pointed at a couple of the red pins and started to fill Buffy in, "We haven't gotten any hard visuals, but Kimmie and Vi did some neat triangulation and considering where we first saw them and the population of the area, they think they are here." Xander pointed to an area right outside of the metro region of the city.

"Huh, alright well that's a good." Buffy turned to Willow and Dawn. "What do you two have?"

"Just Willow being stubborn," Dawn said, folding her arms across her chest to peer over at the witch.

"No, no stubborn, just right Dawnie." Willow smiled over to Buffy.

"Right? No. Stubborn? Yes. Willow you can't believe that it's the same people?"

The redhead glared at Dawn. "Yes, I can. I spent all this morning tracking down the information. It fits." The women stood off against each other. Dawn in her own right had grown into a woman of formidable stature while Willow stood her ground and slowly watched the resolve of her "might as well be sister" falter.

It was Buffy who stepped between the two, causing each to look away. Glancing at Dawn, Buffy settled her gaze on Willow. "You wanna clue the rest of us in?" The blonde took Willow's hand and sat them down in two of the wooden chairs surrounding the table.

"Dawn and I have been working the past two days to try and link things together. I've been through about 8 different on-line archives with most not being readily available to the public and she's been searching for references to our demon friends…"

"I found some vague accounts of the demons or maybe it was demon cousins. I'm not sure, but I found some stuff and Willow, like usual, just took it and ran," Dawn blurted out. She took in the body language of her sister and Willow and raised an eyebrow in Buffy's direction.

"Took and ran I did. It was the most solid lead and we need to be sure how to deal. What it gave me was circumstantial, but the best explanation for what those researchers found for the NGP."

"NGP?" Buffy queried.

"Oh, sorry, The National Genographic Project."

"Willow, dear, are you, what I mean to say is, what does a global science experiment have to do with our situation?" Giles perked up from his chair.

Willow slid the keyboard in front of her and hit a few keys. The projector motor came to life and the computer's screen was now on the wall behind them. Everyone except Willow turned to see the display.

"The National Genographic Project has lots, well nearly everything to do with what I've found." Willow's hands flew over the keys as she went through and accessed the network of the research facilities. Scanning the file list, her eyes found the folder she was looking for. Bringing up a map, she began talking, "Giles, this goes back to what you were saying when we first got here. I think the times are a bit off, but that could be for a dozen reasons. The accounts that you found about that group of people migrating may be more truthful than you think. Dawn found some references that I think link it all together.

"What I've got is pretty much a genetic link between the groups. Thanks to the research done by this experiment. These scientists have used mtDNA to pretty much find all of the ancestors of the Native and South Americans. They've shown the migration patterns of human civilization through the use of mtDNA."

Xander raised his hand and waited for Willow to finish. "Okay Will, for those that still watch Blue and Steve?"

"What's not clear?"

"mtDNA? More detail would not go unappreciated. Leave the one eyed man a paw print to follow."

"Oh, right sorry. mtDNA is mitochondrial DNA. It's the most reliable source of DNA and the most effective when looking at ancestry."

Xander's face lit up. "Hey I know about that stuff. I used to play a game on PS1 called…Parasite Elise, no that's not it." He drummed his fingers across the desk top in concentration. "Eve, Parasite Eve. It was about this lady's mitonond-mitohon m-m"

"Mitochondria," Dawn offered.

"Yeah, mito-what's its taking over her body and mutating 'cuz her's had different DNA. It was way weird, but one more question, what's the mito stuffs?"

Willow's eyebrow's rose in surprise. "Actually, that's not half bad and mitochondria are an organelle in the cell that's an ATP…" Willow's voice trailed off as she noticed the looks. Rolling her eyes, she decided on simple, "It's a thing inside of our cells that makes energy. It does have its own DNA which is why it's pretty neat. Also, it only comes from our mother's so it makes it way easier to track 'cuz there's little variation from one generation to the next."

"Oh." Xander nodded and urged Willow to continue, "Okay, so they tracked what where?"

"The researchers tracked the origins of the Indigenous Native and South Americans to a small cluster of tribes in Mongolia. They actually localized it and found that the ancestors came from a specific location of about 9 neighboring tribes. The funny thing is that they also found mtDNA that linked our indigenous Americans to a group of people with Anglo ancestry." Willow waited a beat for that bit to sink in. When all she continued to get were blank stares she continued, "That's huge people! More excitement wouldn't be bad."

"Will, baby, I'm not seeing it." Buffy offered a supportive smile and a squeeze of Willow's thigh.

"The Anglo mtDNA they thought came from Europe, naturally. So they went to Europe and did some testing. The mtDNA that they found to link to the Americans didn't show till around the mid 1700's. The DNA was new. The majority of this has been released for public consumption, but they've held back on data that didn't line up."

Giles sat up straighter and smiled over at the witch. "So the link skips approximately what then?"

Willow looked over at her computer and then hit a few keys bringing up a report and highlighting the findings. "What wasn't released was that the Anglo group, Haplogroup X is said to have skipped several thousand generations. While reporting is still inconclusive, one could infer that the links between the haplogroups that are said to have been the originators of the Native Americans span nearly 11000 years and skip close to 7000. It appears in tribe X then disappears to reemerge as the strongest link in mtDNA some 7000 years later in, of all places, Mediterranean Europe. It's linking the two together Giles. It's really saying that while they don't know the how or the why the fact is that the mtDNA matches are nearly identical which means the variations are pretty much moot."

"So then, the big is?" Buffy asked.

"The big is I think the mtDNA that they've found to be the originator of the mtDNA in tribe X is actually future mtDNA and that a group of people were shot back into the prehistoric ages by our visiting demon clan."

The light went on in Buffy's head as she put the pieces together. "Oh."

Willow turned and smiled at her. "That's all you can say is, "Oh"?"

"Well, By George! Just seems kinda inappropriate."

"Willow…" Dawn butted in. "You can't just make that kind of assumption."

Willow turned to face Dawn once again, "I'm not assuming. I was looking at A that led me to B and there C was all unassuming. It fits." As Dawn was about to speak, Willow held up her hand. "Dawn, I know it's not all nice and neat. There're inconsistencies in some of the research, but it's the best we've got to go on. Unless you find something that can blow a hole the size of Buffy's ego in this then I think it's the best we have to go on."

"Hey, what does that mean?," Buffy interrupted.

Winking at her girlfriend, the witch turned back to face Dawn. "It gives us way more to go on. Besides Dawnie, this will open another area for us to research in."

Unfolding her arms and stuffing them in her pockets, Dawn dropped the argument. "Fine, but I would like the record to state I wasn't 100% sold on this whole mitochondrial link"

Xander scribbled on a note pad by his elbow making a show of taking notes, "Let the record show that one Dawn "Pumpkin Belly" Summers is not entirely on the mitochondrial train."

"We can then surmise that the accounts for all intents and purposes are correct then? Our group of demons did make an appearance and brought with them others." Giles said with a hint of relief on his features.

"I think so. I want Dawn to help corroborate some of this, but it wouldn't be a far leap in the wacky logical realm." Willow looked to Dawn and the girl just shrugged. Rolling her eyes, Willow leaned back in her chair and took Buffy's hand that was resting on her thigh.

"Willow I'm not even sure if I can. The records that we have only go back so far and you're talking about going back nearly 20,000 years." Annoyance won out in the brunette as she watched a look pass between her sister and Willow. "Okay that's it you two. What's going on?"

Buffy's head snapped up to meet the narrowed gaze of her sister and she blushed. "I, what are you talking about Dawn?" Feigning ignorance for the moment, Buffy hoped to buy a little more time.

"That." Dawn waved her hand at the connected digits between the two woman sitting next her. "You two are way too touchy and don't think I missed the 'baby' that slipped out Buffy. Are you two together?"

They both heard a sharp intake of breath from Giles' general direction. Buffy locked eyes with Willow in silent communication. Nodding, Willow began to speak as she turned to face Dawn, "Yeah Dawnie, we are. We weren't gonna say anything just yet. New and all, but yes to your question."

Dawn's face caught fire as she threw three books into a messenger bag. Tossing the bag over her shoulder, she spun around to face the new couple. "Great, Buff. What, you couldn't handle guys anymore so you go to the only gay woman you know?" She turned around and headed for the door. Taking one last parting shot, she growled over her shoulder, "Why is it you're not happy 'till you've killed everything I love?"

Tears sprang to Willow's eyes as she turned to the slayer. Buffy looked over at Willow and pulled her into a hug. The two stayed that way for a moment until a cough broke the tense air.

"Buffy, Willow" Giles's soft voice filled the room. "I think perhaps, at least on my end, a congratulations are in order or perhaps a well wishing and good luck to you both."

Willow gratefully smiled at Giles and Buffy just nodded wiping the tears from her lover's cheeks.

"Thanks Giles." Buffy's voice was thick. "I, it means a lot."

He smiled ruefully at his old charge and added, "Perhaps this relationship will stick for the both of you. Lord knows you both deserve it."

The meeting broke up after Dawn's dramatic exit causing Buffy and Willow to retire to the witch's room. Willow's head rested on Buffy's arm as the blonde ran her fingers through red locks. Buffy's head was propped up on a few pillows and watched her feet knock together in agitation.

"Wills, what, Dawn..." Confusion, anger, and hurt laced Buffy's voice.

"I dunno Buff. That was…intense."

"I need to talk to her. Why does she do this anyhow? What the hell?"

"Again, I don't know. It was bizarre. I thought…" Willow tried to keep her voice from wavering, "I thought that she would be happy for us. She was so supportive of Tara and well Kennedy not so much, but I get the why."

"I don't think any of us were real supportive while you and Ken were together."

Willow smiled and kissed Buffy's shoulder. "It's okay." Willow played with the hem of Buffy's shirt as she thought about Dawn's reaction to her and Buffy. Coming up with nothing, she spoke, "Do you think maybe I should go talk to Dawn?"

Buffy glanced down into worried green eyes, "I, maybe, I don't know. She seemed mad at me. Think maybe I should."

Not wanting her lover to face the wrath of Dawn alone she offered, "We could talk to her together?"

"Not sucky, but maybe it's…" leaving the sentence unfinished Buffy blew out exasperatedly.


"I…well, sister stuff. Maybe it's that," Buffy finished and cringed.

Sensing where Buffy was going with this, Willow conceded and began shoving Buffy away. "Go. Talk to Dawnie. Find out the what."

The slayer swung her legs over the bed and glanced back, "You sure?"

"Yep. Go. I'll be here. I want to look at some more stuff anyhow. The DNA gave us a frame of reference and a good link, but if you didn't know, written records at that time, kinda poopy."

Buffy smiled and leaned back placing a soft kiss on her witch's lips. "Kay, so be back in a bit then."

Willow returned the kiss and then shoved Buffy off the bed. She watched the blonde turn and wave before shutting the door. Willow grabbed her bag from the floor and pulled out her computer. Blowing the bangs from her eyes, she grumbled, "Damnit Dawnie." And then set to work.

Buffy knocked on Dawn's door and was torn between wanting her sister to be there and not. She wasn't sure she was ready to face her sister's anger for a second time today. A quiet 'come in' was offered a moment later and Buffy prepared herself for the upcoming conversation. She stepped into the room and saw her sister sitting at the desk.

"Dawn, we need to talk."

"Thanks Buffy, but no. Close the door on your way out."

Buffy sunk down on the bed resting her elbows on her knees. She leaned forward a bit then kicked the back of the chair with her foot. "Not going anywhere until you explain to me that scene in the research room. Not cool and not appreciated. Screw how you made me feel. You hurt Wills Dawn."

Dawn spun around in her chair and squared off against an aloof looking slayer. "Buffy. Go. I don't want to talk about it. You'll just start with the holier than thou routine and then I'll start yelling."

The blonde leaned back on the bed using her arms as support and said, "Not leaving squirt. What's the problem? You were fine with Tara and well, no one was ok with Ken, but that's not the point."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "This has nothing to do with Willow or Willow's taste in women of course with you and Ken, one has to start questioning."

"So, it's me?"

"Only if you say you as in you you." Dawn ran her fingers through her hair and said, "You ruin everything Buffy. I can't believe you would…it's Willow for gods sakes and why her? Couldn't you have picked one of the other witches in residence to sleep with?"

"Just spit it out Dawn," growled Buffy.

"Don't you get it? Everyone you love leaves you. Angel, Riley, Spike. You manage to fuck it up and they have to leave town. We just got Willow back and here you are trying to ruin it for everyone!" Dawn's voice rose in pitch as continued to speak, "You're so selfish. Did you even think how this was going to affect the rest of us round here? We love Willow too and were just as hurt by her going away. Now, when you break her heart, she isn't ever going to comeback." Dawn sank back in the chair and let the tears she had been keeping in check spill over.

Buffy stayed on the bed stunned. She had come in here expecting badness, but this was different. Dawn's anger and hurt seeped into Buffy's soul and she knew that Dawn had a point. Buffy had been so jealous of Inara that she had run into this without thinking of the consequences. What would happen if Willow and she did break up? Would the witch really leave all of them for good? Self doubt and guilt clouded Buffy's thoughts. She choked back the sob that rose in her throat. She wondered why Dawn looked so blurry and the tears running down her face didn't register until she felt the drops fall from her chin.

"D-Dawn," Buffy coughed to clear her throat and tried to continue, "Dawnie, I don't think that's going to happen."

"You don't know Buffy. Anything could happen. You could go all wall on us if something major happens and shut down on everyone. You could die one night and then Willow will what, just accept it? Like she did the second time you died? Yeah, that'll happen," the sarcasm laced snort cut in to the blonde and she looked down at her shoes. "Lemme guess, she's gonna be the one to break your heart when she realizes that she suddenly likes boys again? There's only one way for this to end Buffy, I lose one or both of you. I-I c-c-can't do that anymore."

Dawn shoved back from her chair causing the chair to bang in to the desk behind it. She began pacing as she spat the words out, "Ya know, I could have dealt with you getting together with Xander, 'cuz he's well he's like something that doesn't go away even though you abuse it. He would take the beatings you give your lovers and still be around. Willow won't, she'll…she'll leave or something worse and you'll have taken the closest thing to a parent I have away…again."

Buffy struggled for breath as Dawn's words did worse than any bad ever had. Blood rushed through her and her ears rang as her pulse pounded. Not being able to take any more of Dawn's tirade, she pushed herself up and struggled to the door. Not bothering to say another word, Buffy ran down the hall to her own room.

Willow looked up from her computer and noticed that more time had passed than she had anticipated. She stretched her back and stood. Wondering where Buffy had gone off to, she set out in search of her wayward lover. She didn't expect Dawn and Buffy to take that long in the conversation department. Truthfully she had thought it would take a maximum of 15 minutes for Dawn and Buffy both to come running in and Dawn apologizing. Willow reached out for Buffy's presence and found it in disturbing disarray in the slayer's bedroom.

Willow ignored the idea of knocking and pushed the door open. No lights were on in the darkening room and she could only make out the vague, covered shape of what she could only assume to be her girlfriend. Thankful for the lack of footwear, she crawled on the bed and slipped in behind the small blonde. Willow wrapped her arms around the curled body and began placing small kisses on the exposed portion of Buffy's neck. The action garnered little response from the still form so she pulled Buffy closer to her and whispered, "Hey sleepy head. It's me. Wake up."

Buffy's head shook a little and finally after a few more moments of coaxing, her eyes fluttered open. "Wasn't sleeping. More like avoiding with a healthy dose of brooding," the blonde whispered back. She turned in Willow's arms letting her lover's scent calm her.

Willow laid there a moment with Buffy clutching to her and then gently tried to persuade her lover in to talking more, "I take it the talk didn't end so well?"

A short hard laugh escaped Buffy's lips. "No, the word well would be used to define something that didn't suck. It sucked, but on the plus side it's not you."

"No? Then what?" Willow asked.

Buffy pulled herself up to rest her forehead against Willow's. Her mouth pinched in thought deciding on how much to tell Willow and then, "It's me. She, uh, thinks I'll hurt you."

"Oh, that's…sweet. I think. You won't though."

Buffy gave her lover a small, sad smile. "You can't know that Wills. Track records all sorts of bad."

"And mine's much better?" Willow sat farther up in the bed and pulled Buffy to a resting position on her shoulder. "Well, as sweet as Dawn's concern is, she needs to butt out and at least pretend to be happy. It's the polite thing to do."

"She…Will, if we do, break up, you're not going to leave are you?" Buffy's quiet voice resonated in Willow and she couldn't help but shake her head.

"No Buff. Can't leave. Even, even when I got back from England and things were…well…shitty. I couldn't leave. You guys are home. When I was gone with Ken, I was miserable. As you know, I didn't last that long. Color me co-dependant." Willow ran her hands down Buffy's back. She could tell Buffy was holding back but decided to let it go. She would talk with Dawn later, privately.


Chapter 18 – Apocolyptic…Nails

Mal was the last one in to the makeshift conference room. As he shut the door, he saw Giles on the projector on the wall to his right. Everyone was situated on the left side of the table looking at the screen. Sliding in between Inara and Zoë, Mal smiled and gave a short wave to the man.

"Ah good. Mal, I trust everything is going well?" asked Giles.

"Happy as a lark." Mal sent a grin over to Inara and turned his attention back to the screen.

"Good, good. Well, it's been going well on our end. It appears we've had a bit of a break through and I was hoping Kaylee that you could tell us about Serenity's flight worthiness?"

"I've got 'nother few hours to 'sus everything out and make sure she's runnin' like she should, but she'll be up and ready to hit the Black by the end of today."

"Splendid. Faith," Giles's eyes sought out the senior slayer and continued, "Ah, I want to fill all of you in on the news; however, I think it best that we are all present. Are the girls ready to travel?"

"Sure thing, Giles. Well, a few of 'em might have to pack up the malls that they brought with them, but we can be ready in a few if we have to."

"Alright then, Mal, Kaylee, I was wondering if… is there some type of cloaking mechanism on Serenity?"

"Come again?" Mal asked.

"You know, a way to mask Serenity on Radar?"

"G-man," Xander's voice was heard off camera, "it's not the U.S.S. Enterprise. Science-y invisibility is make-believe. Yes, we were lied to."

"Xander, are you forgetting the invisibility ray?" Willow's voice rang out.

"Ah, true, but wasn't that 'cuz of some mystical diamond?"

"Ya know, I don't know. I never did get the chance to look at that thing thoroughly."

"Shame too. You had tons of fun with the Buffybot imagine the fun with the ray-o-slow death." Xander stopped talking for a moment. "Hey Wills, just how much fun DID you have with the Buffybot?"

A loud cough could be heard by the team in New Mexico and Faith stifled a laugh from watching Giles' irritated glance to his right. "If I could be allowed to continue?"

"Sure thing, Giles."

"Sorry, Giles."

"Thank you. Now, since we can't cloak you on Radar, perhaps we should just take our chances and let you guys fly anyway."

"Ain't that a might risky?" Mal asked.

Zoë shot him a look and then said, "Of all the things we done, flying around here is risky?"

"I'm just sayin' for all intents, we're in hostile territory. I, for once, ain't lookin' for any run-ins with the local law."

"You won't have to. I can hop a flight out there and cloak the ship like I did when they first arrived." Willow offered from the sidelines.

"Oh, very well then. Willow, I will need you out there immediately."

"Sure," Willow said. The crew in New Mexico watched Willow appear in the periphery of the screen and then leave.

"Now, that we got that snug and settled. What else is going on Giles?" Mal asked.

"Truthfully a great deal." The older man removed his glasses and began polishing as he spoke, "I'm not. I feel it would be best for all of us to be together as I go over the information."

"And I think you need to bottom line us here and now. I ain't flyin blind."

"Very well." Giles replaced his glasses.

"Giles," Buffy's voice could be heard from the sidelines. "Cliff notes."

"Of course, Buffy." Rolling his eyes, he turned back to the camera. "It turns out that your arrival and the arrival of the demons who kidnapped you was not coincidental. The arrival of the group of Kololeka demons was the catalyst that brought you here. In finding this out, we feel the easiest solution to everyone's problems would be to send the demons back where they came from and in effect that would send all of you back to your own time."

Looking at the screen Giles noticed a few faces that were still a tad confused. "By sending the demons back we will reverse the, for lack of a better word, spell that brought you here. When we send them back you and your crew will be automatically returned to your own time." Seeing the confusion dissipate, he continued, "Now, we have located their lair and will apprehend them once we get you and the teams of slayers back here in Ohio.

"This does leave one area of question that needs to be followed up on. Since Willow isn't here, I will do my best to ask the questions properly. When you first came to us, Mal, you relayed the story of how you and your team were being chased by…the Alliance. You stated that you flew in to a black hole. Now, while I'm not quite sure on the physics behind doing such a thing, what I do know is that the information available to us in this time that would be highly unlikely. Are you sure that is what it was?"

Mal looked at his crew and settled a questioning gaze on River. The pilot didn't look as though she was going to answer. Sighing, Mal ran his hand through his hair and tried to remember what exactly they had flown into. Giles was right. While the captain wasn't sure what it was that they had gone in to, Mal just assumed it had been some type of black something or other. River had said she couldn't keep away from the pull of the object and it did appear out of nowhere. Frustration won out and he brought his hand down on the table.

"No, there Giles. I can't say what it was, for certain. And none of the crew here look to be willin' to answer. River, you got anything you wanna add to this conversation?"

River shook her head no and slouched further into her seat.

"Right then, Giles. Maybe we should re-evaluate that whole black hole theory then. All I can say fer sure is that it was black and hole like."

"Very well then. I think we may have an answer soon." Giles cleared his throat and continued, "Willow and…Buffy will be on their way to get you back to Cleveland. We will see you all soon."

"Let's get movin' folks so we can get back doin' what we do!" The enthusiasm in Mal's voice was evident and quickly became infectious. Ending the call, the group broke up to prepared to leave.

"What's this place again? It looks like a central planet market, but…" Mal looked around mildly overwhelmed. While it wasn't common knowledge, one of the many reasons he hated the central planets was because of the population and close proximity of everything. It felt wrong to the man and being in what Faith had called Tower City Center, unnerved him.

"But all stacked in a building?" Zoe finished. She hazarded a glance at her friend and noticed the parted mouth and wide eyes, the telltale signs of Mal uneasy. Taking action, she directed, "Xander, why don't you take the Captain and Simon to go get some food. I wanna walk around some with the girls."

Xander beamed. "That I can do. You two, quick, before they make us carry the bags." The remark earned him a playful smack from Willow. He turned to wink at his friend as he ushered the other two males on the escalator to the first level and to his favorite place in the mall, the food court.

"Wills and I have an appointment at 11. Faith, I'll call you around noon?" Buffy explained.

"Sure thing B." Faith patted her pocket to make sure her cell was there and then waved the two off. "Alright, so what do you guys want to do?"

"So, we came here because?" Inara inquired. It seemed like a lovely place, but given the circumstances, she didn't think shopping was the best idea.

"Red and B wanted to get their nails done. We just sorta came along for the ride. 'Sides," Faith said, beaming at the four remaining women, "We kinda figured that you could buy some stuff here and then sell it. Loads of cash for stuff from Earth That Was. That and hey, who doesn't love the mall?"

Zoë nodded. "We could catch some pretty coin for some of this stuff."

"Oh, and think of the pretties. I could get me a good, proper dress to wear. Knock Simon off his feet if I could find somethin' good and sexy. Inara?"

Inara smiled at her friend and nodded. "I guess that means we're in."

"Cool." Faith pulled a handful of plastic cards out of her back pocket. "Willow decided to make you all some I.D's. We weren't sure that you were staying, but she made 'em anyhow. This," she pointed to the card pinched between her index and thumb, "is your state I.D. Very handy and this," she slid the credit card from behind the other card, "is like cash, but not. Hand it to the clerk and just say charge it."

Zoë looked over the cards in Faith's hand and shrugged. "Sounds okay by me." She took the two offered pieces of plastic and thanked Faith.

After Faith distributed the cards, she turned to River. "You ready, Riv?"

"Yes. Are you sure about this?" River's worried voice made Faith smile.

"See you guys in a few. Zoë you have the cell so remember, hit 2 and send, we'll meet you where ever." Faith waited for a nod then ushered River away from her friends.

Megan glanced up from her current client as the doors to the spa swung open. She smiled in greeting to the small blonde and redhead who walked through. Calling out to her coworker, she yelled, "Melissa! Front!"

A short, dark haired, head popped from behind a door in the back to look at the lobby. "Gotcha." The girl made her way to the front. "Hi, I'm Melissa. Welcome to Les Amis. How can I help you?"

Buffy smiled back and said, "Hi, Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg. We have appointments at 11."

"Sure, hang on one moment." Melissa scanned the screen of the computer in front of her. "Yep. If you two will wait one minute then we can get started." She turned from the two and looked over at Megan.

"1, 2, 3…All done." Megan twisted the cap back on the nail polish. Megan took a moment to finish up with her other client and then went to the front. "So, who's getting what?" The short blonde asked rocking on her feet.

Buffy stood while Willow answered, "I'm getting a pedicure and Buffy here's getting…?"

"Both. I really, really need both." Buffy laughed.

"Ah, cool. Well then, I can start on you, Buffy is it?" Megan asked. "I'm Megan by the way. The slightly taller mental patient to my right is Melissa or Mel if you're feeling frisky. I do the hands and she does the feet."

"Why am I the mental patient?" Melissa asked with mock hurt.

"Uh, you're related to one? I just figured your sister's had to rub off on you a little."

The four got settled in and about twenty minutes later were engaged in easy conversation.

The sliver of moon hung low in the sky as Faith moved through the woods and she cursed it for providing such little light. Taking a quick head count she ran down the list of people who were supposed to be with her. Alpha Team should have B, Red, Kimmie, Isa, and Cass. Looking to her right, she saw her five girls, Carrie, Lib, Toni, Nai, and Z. Satisfied, she refocused on the upcoming job.

It had to be one of the craziest schemes she'd been a part of. Granted B's let's make 'em all slayers plan had and probably would continue to take the cake, but going in to a lair of 6 of those tail wielding, concussion causing demons from a few weeks ago with only elephant tranquilizers and rope wasn't the sanest thing she'd done in a long time.

She stumbled as her foot caught an upturned root of a nearby tree and she cussed.

"Faith," Buffy hissed. "More noise so we can really let them know we're coming."

Faith wasn't sure if Buffy caught the glare she sent her way or not, but as the out cropping of caves that they had to go into became visible, she didn't care anymore.

"'Kay everyone, lock and load" Buffy's voice rang through everyone's minds.

"Christ, now we gotta go through the mind meld too?" Carrie whined.

"Girls!" Willow's tone was sharp, "Demons, big ones. We need to focus. Yes, we are communicating like this, and no, I will not get out of your head. Buffy, lock and load? You've been watching to many action movies with Xander."

A faint blush crept up the blonde's features and she winked at her witch. "Everyone knows what to do. Kimmie, Carrie, and Cass follow my lead. We're bait." With no more than a backwards glance, Buffy rushed into the unlit caves.

Buffy hadn't been anticipating that the actual den would be no more than 10 feet into the entrance of the cave, but it was. As she rounded the corner to her left, an arm came rushing at her head. Ducking the attack, she rolled to the right and sprang up to her feet watching the chunks of rock fly through the air.

"6 demons are here…Carrie, the rest of you get your asses in gear!" Buffy hissed through the link.

Three bodies rushed past her into the center of the cavern and she struggled briefly to stay with them. It took no more than a 10th of a second before all six demons had started to circle the four girls. They were very similar to the ones that Buffy had beheaded and Willow had immolated. She also noticed slight variations and couldn't help the fleeting thought that these demons were like humans in their variation. Everyone was similar, but different at the same time. The thought vanished when a tail swept her feet from under her. Her back hit the hard, packed, dirt floor and she rolled away in time to avoid her face becoming a pasty mess as an arm came rushing at where her head had been.

Kimmie looked sharply to her left as a series of high pitched cries echoed through the cave. She watched as Faith, Libby, Nai and Isa shot three of the demons in the neck. The creatures wailed out and then fell, silent and unmoving. Three were left and they were putting up a much better fight. One turned around and began attacking Faith and the rest of the slayers who held the guns. She ducked a wild punch and rolled to her left coming up next to Carrie.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph." Carrie bent over with her hands on her knees trying to catch her breath. "These fuckin' things are too much."

"Duck!" Kimmie grabbed at Carrie's shoulder but was too late to stop the arm that snatched her friend up and threw her twenty feet into a solid rock wall. She ducked, rolled away again and scrambled to get to the fallen slayer.

"Kimmie!" Cass cried out, but stopped as she saw Buffy launch herself at the two demons that were going after the other girl.

Buffy heard two successive hisses from the tranq guns as she wrapped her arms around two necks. She pitched forward bringing the two demons down to the ground with her. It was the dead weight that carried the maneuver forward as the darts sank home and the demons blacked out. The weight difference of the demons upset her balance forcing her to let go of the one on her left and fall with the one on her right. She crumpled under the weight of the demon. It rolled and in the process crushed her right side pinning her arm and half her body underneath its own. As the demon's other half hit the ground she felt her arm bend and snap with the impact. Black dots clouded her vision, but she smiled as she heard the body of the last demon standing, fall.

"Buffy!' Willow's voice echoed.

"Fine," the blonde called out. "Uh, buried under big and ugly, but fine…I think." She felt the demon's weight shift and she was free. Struggling to her feet, she cradled her injured arm. Willow's arms were wrapped around her before she had a chance to stand up fully and she tried to return the embrace. "Everyone ok?"

"I…" Willow tried to answer.

"Red. Need you NOW!" Faith's shout interrupted the witch.

Both turned in the direction of Faith's voice. They saw pink hair and knew Carrie hadn't gotten up from where she had been thrown. Willow dropped her arms from around Buffy and ran over to where Carrie lay. The slayer's injuries were pretty severe. Her left side was scrapped and already deeply bruised. As Willow's gaze traveled further down the injured body, she tore at the fabric of the girl's shirt and gently touched a protruding rib.

Her hands quickly passed over the rest of Carrie's body trying to assess the injuries. Deciding to work on the ribs and the nearly collapsed lung first, Willow let her focus and energy coalesce and directed it towards the injured slayer. Her hands burned, but she ignored the discomfort and cast the spells she needed to get Carrie out of the caves alive.

The rest of the girls stood around watching Willow work and an audible gasp could be heard as they watched the torn flesh and broken bones heal before their eyes. Buffy watched until she was satisfied that Carrie would be walking out of here by the time Willow was done. She turned her attention to the 6 unconscious demons behind her.

"Girls, let's get these things tied up. I don't wanna have to do this again." Buffy touched the button on her earpiece and radioed in. "Xander, we're good here. Send some medical back up though, Carrie's hurt pretty bad and I think my arms broke." Buffy looked at her injured arm and then down at her hand. "Goddamnit!"

"Buffy! Buff! What's wrong?" Xander's scared voice shot through her ear.

"Stupid, heavy, dumb, jerky." Buffy walked over to the nearest demon and kicked its side. "Perfectly good manicure gone, down the tube. I swear, why do I even bother?"

Sighing, Xander relaxed from his position in the helicopter's cab and said, "It's not the end of the world, Buff. It'll be okay."

"Not the end of the world!? Not to you. My nails ripped off! Gone! It's ugly and mangled and… and stuff!"

Willow heard the panic in her lover's voice. Rising on shaky legs, she rose from her resting position and rushed to Buffy's side. "What's wrong?"

Buffy struggled to hold up her lame arm and showed Willow her injured hand. A pout formed as she rested her head on Willow's shoulder and she said, "I broke a nail."

Buffy grumbled into her morning coffee as she met up with Faith and Kimmie on their way to the conference room.

"Mornin' B." Faith smiled.

"Yeah, good morning Buffy," Kimmie chirped. Then took in the annoyed look of her superior and asked, "You okay?"

"Fine. I'm fine. Apocalyptic nail breakage aside." She noticed both girls roll their eyes in her direction and stuck her tongue out at them as they walked ahead of her and in through the open doors.

Xander was with Willow at the head of the table and Buffy noted the absence of Giles. Sending a questioning look to the two, Xander responded with a shrug. As she made her way to the front, she noticed Carrie and stopped to check in. "You feelin' up to this?"

"Willow healed me up good and right. As long as I keep movement to a minimum, I'm ok." Carrie tried to smile, but the pain from her broken cheek bone turned the offered expression in to a pained flinch.

Buffy nodded and went to sit next to Faith.

"Good Morning." Willow waited to get everyone's attention. "Just wanted to say, good job all around. Everyone did a great job and the demons are locked down. So Alpha and Red teams, take the rest of the week off." Willow then turned to Carrie and set her features. "I think you should be in the infirmary, if I remember right?" Willow waited a moment for her look to take full effect and then turned back to the rest of the girls. "The rest of you are dismissed."

As Buffy watched everyone but herself, Xander, Willow and Faith leave, Giles came pushing through the door. Her eyebrows rose as he got closer. He was still wearing the same shirt from yesterday; however, it sported more than a few wrinkles and she could smell the demon's blood from her seat across the room.

"Sorry I'm late all. I've been in the basement, having a word with our guests." Giles apologized rolling up his falling sleeves. "I trust everyone is well? Willow, how are you doing? Buffy, your arm?"

"Arm's fine, Giles. How're you?" Buffy asked with a slight smirk.

"I've been better thank you. Willow?" His gaze traveled over to the witch waiting on a response.

"Fine. Good even."

"No serious after effects from healing Carrie?" he asked the worry evident in his voice.

"Tired, but I got some coffee. I'll be ready for later today." Willow smiled and held up her coffee mug.

"Very well then. I suppose you were waiting on me?" The question was met with a nod of heads so he began, "After we removed everyone from the caves, I went back with Xander and Dawn to have a look around. We did find one body; unfortunately, Dawn was unable to glean the identity of the victim. Other than that, we collected a few artifacts that are being examined."

"Red, do we know how to send everyone back to where they belong now?" Faith dropped her feet from the table and looked over to Willow.

"I need to go see the demons, but I think so. The spell or whatever that brought them here should be not too headachy to break. Once I break it, everything kinda goes…poofy and it's done."

"I thought you said I wouldn't get my poofy?" Buffy smiled.

"Hey." Willow's brow scrunched together in a bogus pout. "I was working on incorrect information. Although, Giles, I think that it is kinda funny that I wasn't able to find a spell signature on Mal and the rest. Maybe we could look in to it later? Seems kinda fishy."

"I see. I suppose we could take some time once everything is settled to look into it. Right now, Dawn is looking at a few of the artifacts I've mentioned. One was a scroll and the others, I believe, might be tools used for sacrifice. Dawn is in the research room. Let's go and see if there are any developments."

Dawn looked up from her position at the table and nodded. She had been doing her best to avoid her sister and Willow since she found out about their coupling, but with everyone else in tow, she bit the bullet and addressed the group, "Give me a few more minutes and I think I'll have a decent partial translation of that scroll we found last night." She typed a few things into her computer and scanned the parchment to her left.

The only sound that filled the room was from a pen Dawn held in her hand and rapped it lightly against the edge of the table she was working at. Taking another moment to look over the screen, Dawn accessed the projector and let everyone turn their attention to the screen.

"Alright, so I've been through every translation I could think of and this seems to make the most sense. They seem to worship an ancient god of war and destruction, Kabluresh; I've found some vague references from about 17,000 years ago from a tribe in Western Siberia that also had a god with a similar name. I'm trying to link the two together, but that's going to take me a few days."

"Dawn, dear, what are we missing?" Giles asked, peering up at the screen.

"I'm having some trouble with the invocation to the god, which is the middle part of the text. Now, it's either the invocation or it's an ancient description of the Hokey Pokey."

Xander snorted and said, "I just knew those wacky demons had to cut lose every now and then. And let's be honest, isn't turning yourself about the best way to do so?"

"It could also be the Macarena, but it's just a wild guess," Dawn joked back.

"Any wording to reverse the spell?" Willow asked, trying to get the conversation refocused.

"From what I've read and could interpret, all we need to do is release Kabluresh from the spell and everything should go back to normal." The brunette smiled proudly.

"I think it best that we get this done as soon as possible." Giles turned to Faith. "While we prepare down here, why don't you get Mal and his family together to have them organize to go home."

"Sure thing, G." Faith turned and left the room leaving the five sitting there looking up at the screen.

"Dawn, before we proceed, I just want to ensure that this will be all, I don't want any surprises."

"The spell they used to get here is pretty basic. Just a request from a group of demons wanting to bring death and destruction to another plane of existence. Kabluresh was just the wacky god they used to gain access to this dimension. Cut and dry like Salami and anchovy sandwiches."


Chapter 19 – The Long Way Home

The knot that had settled in her stomach after she had left the basement seemed to grow with every passing step. Faith was barely conscious of where her feet were taking her as she exited the house and followed the path out to where they had placed Serenity. She had known this day was coming. Should have listened to the voice in her head screaming at her to avoid the emotional entanglements of forming a relationship, in any form, with River, but no, Faith ignored it. Now she was going to pay dearly for not listening.

Of course, that was the way things had always been with Faith. Find someone that means anything to you and then let them die, leave them or they leave you. No one who had meant anything to her, who had tried to help her through her turbulent life, had stayed. She looked up at the afternoon sun, while at the moment it shone bright; the air was tepid with heavy clouds on the horizon. The threat of rain made the air thick and seemed to add to her plummeting disposition. Glancing up ahead, she saw Mal and Jayne taking inventory of some of the things they had purchased here.

"Hey." Faith tried to smile, but by the looks of their reactions knew she had failed.

"Howdy, Faith." Mal returned Faith's attempt at a grin with a genuine one. "What brings you out this way?"

"Giles asked me to let you guys know that you should prep everything to go home. Seems like we'll be able to get you back before the end of today."

Mal's face lit up at the thought and he playfully punched Jayne in the arm. "Some of the best news I've heard in awhile. Good. I'll get everyone together then. Jayne, finish this up." Mal didn't glance back as he entered the ship through the cargo bay.

The slayer rubbed the back of her neck and looked at Jayne. "You don't know where River is do you?"

Jayne raked his eyes over Faith's body and licked his lips. "Whatcha want her fer'?"

She ignored his glances for the time being and answered, "Just wanna talk to her. You know or what?"

"Dunno why you wanna talk with that xiong meng de kuang ren fer', but last I seened 'er was walkin' up to the bridge." Jayne watched her ass as Faith walked off without even a backwards glance. Shaking his head, he muttered disgustedly, "Fine piece like that more interested in a barely legal, moon brained girl. Even if the girl ain't bad on the eyes…whatta waste."

Faith caught Jayne's parting words, but ignored them and entered the cargo bay. Trying to remember her way to the bridge, she noticed that the place seemed a bit too quiet. Rounding the corner, she found herself looking into the med bay of the ship. Simon was there stocking up and he smiled as he saw her.

"Hi Faith."

"Hey, Simon. I got lost. I was lookin' for River. Jayne said she was headed towards the bridge?"

"Ah, sure. Go up those steps to your right and then hang another right. You'll see it from there."

"Thanks." Faith followed his instructions and was climbing the small set of steps that would take her onto the bridge when she heard River's voice. Pausing a moment to give her friend some privacy she waited until River was done talking. "…love you all." was the last she heard, so Faith stepped through the door and smiled as River looked back and grinned at the slayer.

"Figured I'd come check in. I just told Mal and Jayne…"

"To get ready to leave," River finished.

"You do know it's kinda creepy when you do that right?" Faith leaned against the railing by River.

"They've said. You know." River pointed out of the windows as she rose from her seat and stood next to Faith. "I remember the first time it was clear that I was sailing around in space."

"When was that?" Faith asked wrapping her arm around River's shoulders as the girl rested her head on Faith's arm.

"The ship had been detained by the Alliance and Mal, even then, made sure that we weren't found. Simon was so scared. We put on suits and went outside the ship. We hung to the side as the Alliance tore it apart. It was then, with nothing but fabric and glass separating me from The Black. I turned and the stars were…"

"I think I can imagine," Faith said.

"No, I don't think so. I mean I think you can imagine, but it's different. I'll hold on to that memory forever. It'll be enough."


River glanced up into sad, brown eyes. "To treasure and make memories from. Like you here. I wish you could see it. Once even."

Dawn was doing her best to ignore the tense silence that hung in the basement air as she and Willow worked on finishing the preparations for the spell. She could feel some talk; any talk regarding her reaction to her sister and the witch was coming. Willow kept on shooting her glances when she thought she wasn't looking. Dreading the upcoming discussion, she grumbled to herself thinking she should have stayed with everyone else to avoid the impending doom.

Instead she gripped her chalk pencil and helped Willow draw the design on the concrete floor. Dawn looked around at the nearly complete symbol and shrugged. It was 13 feet in diameter with crude representations of Nordic Runes surrounding, what to Dawn, looked like a cowboy hat and fish hooks drawn by Dali, but was instead the symbol of an archaic god of destruction. The entire drawing was circumferenced by a bold, white circle.

As she completed the outside circle, Dawn heard Willow ask, "Can we, uh, stop for a moment and talk?"

"Any way I'm gonna get out of it?" Dawn asked sarcastically. Turning her attention from the rag clutched in her hands she was using to wipe off the dust, to the redhead now rising from her haunches on the other side of the circle.

"Nope." Willow grinned.

"Then talk."

Willow was a little taken aback by Dawn's tone, but she forged ahead anyhow. "Buffy didn't say exactly what you two talked about yesterday, but I know she was really upset when I found her. Why?"

Dawn looked at Willow then and saw the hurt and betrayal reflected in green eyes. "She's gonna mess up Will. She's gonna pull a classic Buffy maneuver and you're going to leave. Then what? We get left picking up the pieces like usual. If it was anyone else, I wouldn't care, but it's you."

Willow nodded not really seeing the girl's logic. "It's not really your decision. Buffy and I, not what I had expected, not saying it wasn't thought about, but it's different, Dawnie. I can feel it. Look at your sister. Something's changed in her. I'm not saying I'm the responsible party, but she's different, better." Dawn tried to interrupt, but Willow held up her hand to stop her. "I'm not done. You can be mean to me if you want. You can be nasty and cruel as much as you feel, but you need to apologize to Buffy. This is huge in new and scary ways for her. I know what it's like. So you either have something nice to say or nothing to say at all."

Dawn ducked her head and then nodded as she looked up at Willow.

"Now, I'm not saying that things are going to be perfect between Buffy and I, but I'm never leaving. Even if we break up, which I don't want to happen, but if we do, you're my family and nothing is going to change that. I love you Dawn, but ya know, sometimes, you can be a bit of a brat?"

Dawn rolled her eyes at the witch. "Comes with the age," she joked. Taking a more curious tone, she asked, "Wills, how?"

The smile spread over Willow's face when she heard Dawn's tone. Knowing that it wasn't perfect, Dawn would at least quit being nasty and rude to her sister. "Faith and I got drunk and Buffy…"

"Wait, you and Faith?" Dawn's eye's grew big as her mind took her to another place. "Buffy walked in on you and Faith having sex!?"

"What? No. Here, let me make this easy. If I look back and am totally honest with myself. Buffy, she's always had a piece of me that no one else could touch. I guess I've had a piece of her too. It just took us a while to get around to the natural progression. She called me a dummy the night we got together."

"Pah, like she's one to talk," Dawn teased.

"She's right tho'. And I think I kinda get Dawn, the why behind your…No one ever plans on breaking up or leaving, if we did then it'd be kinda weird and well, why bother when you know that you aren't gonna at least try to give it an honest shot. Buffy and I, I can't make guarantees. I know that I do love her and she loves me. We've been through a lot together already. I hope it's enough."

Dawn bobbed her head up and down in understanding. "As long as neither of you go nuclear on us or leave. I can deal. All I know is she better treat you right." Grinning Dawn, put her arm around Willow's shoulder pulling her into a half hug. "And if she starts to shove you away?"

Willow's brow scrunched together and she pursed her lips for a moment before answering, "I shove back."

Buffy's hand rested on the doorknob of the research room as she listened to the conversation her sister and lover were having. She smiled as she turned and walked away thinking that she would talk to Willow later.

By the time Willow and Dawn had finished up in the basement, Mal and his crew had prepped the ship to leave. Everyone met in the field behind the school where Serenity was located and all had to squint against the needle pinned drops of rain that fell from thick clouds overhead.

Inara shifted on her feet. Goodbyes were never something that she could do with people who she had grown attached to. When she had first left Serenity, the only one who she had parting words with was Mal and even that had been filled with too much tension and silent tears. This was proving to be nearly as difficult for her. They hadn't known each other for long, but as she stepped up to Willow, she knew the redhead had captured a small piece of her heart.

Willow's eyes filled with tears as she wrapped her arms around Inara's body. Squeezing tight, they both held on to each other. Willow was the first to break away and pull back. "So, it's not like we can write, but…" She was unable to finish the sentence as Inara just nodded in agreement.

Giles interrupted them with a cough. "While I can say that stranger things have happened to us. It would be remiss of me to not say that this round of strange was the most pleasant experience. It's been a joy to get to know you all."

Mal nodded. "It's been fun. I can say that sure enough." He swung his arms in front of him mildly uncomfortable. He ran his right hand through the back of his hair and up to the front. "Now, I know that speeches and such are kinda, well not expected, but I guess, as best as I can 'sus out. Y'all did a mighty good turn helpin' us out. If we could, or you know, I'll just leave it as we owe you one."

"Y'all've been great really. Xander, Faith, Buffy thanks for the help on the wiring. Willow, I don't know how you do what you do, but it was sure nice meeting ya'll," Kaylee said trying to make up for some of the things that maybe couldn't be said.

"We done now? We got some thievin' to do in our own time," said Jayne.

"Righty-o. Alright Ladies and Simon. Let's get out of here." Mal grabbed the bag at his feet turned and followed his crew inside. As Kaylee set to close the bay doors, she, Inara, Mal, Simon, and Zoe turned and waved goodbye. As the doors closed on the people outside, Mal turned to his crew. "We best get ready to hit the Black, little Kaylee. Let's fire her up so's you can show me what I keep you around for."

Willow, Buffy and Faith made a quick retreat to the basement while Giles, Dawn and Xander stayed to watch the ship depart. Making their way through the school, Buffy and Faith stopped at the weapons cache to pick up two dart guns to tranq the six remaining demons. Buffy was the first one in the containment area and let off three successive shots. She was followed by Faith who put down the 3 demons left standing.

"I'll grab the head and you take the feet?" the blonde suggested as she stepped to the center of the room and over to the first still form.

"Why not? I don't get to drag demons around nearly enough as it is," The brunette retorted. She leaned down and released the manacles on the first demon.

"If I said it once, I'll say it again; the dustiness of vamps just makes you appreciate them more. No muss, no fuss, they're just a pile of dust."

Faith raised an eyebrow at the blonde as she grunted under the strain of hoisting the lower half of the beast up. "You turn in to Dr. Seuss while I wasn't watchin'?"

Buffy just grinned then groaned as they maneuvered the body out of the door and down the hall to where Willow was finishing her preparations.

The witch set down her notes as Buffy and Faith brought in the last demon and dropped him in the remaining gap of the circle of bodies.

"You ready Wills?" Buffy asked stepping up to Willow and placing steady hands on her girlfriend's shoulders. A small nod came from Willow and Buff leaned in capturing Willow's lips in a soft kiss. "Be careful, love you," Buffy said as she pulled away.

"Hmm, love you too." Willow grinned at the blonde goofily then seemed to remember Faith still standing off to her left. She looked over and blushed a deep read as Faith leered at the two lovers standing together.

Recovering from the sudden affectionate moment, Willow started, "Alright, I drew the circle before so all I need is to raise some energy and I think say some nifty words." Taking a seat, Indian style, at the center of the circle, the witch began to center herself.

Buffy and Faith stood a few feet back from the bottom of the circle and watched from the sidelines. Buffy's fine hairs stood on end as the energy from the spell coalesced around her. Willow's slow, steady mumbling seemed to increase the tension as the spell gained power causing the pressure in the room to rise. The only sounds that were heard were the soft snores of a few of the demons and Willow's hushed words. Buffy glanced nervously at Faith and they both looked over as Willow began speaking louder. Taking a more opposing stance, they stood watch in case the demons awoke.

"Kabluresh, Deus da Guerra, Senhor do Caos. Vá. Liberte os viajantes deste tempo. Leve-os de volta para o próprio. Deixe-nos saber para terminarmos. Que assim seja"

As Willow's voice died, Buffy felt the air in her lungs leave. The effect left her feeling like she was being sucked into a vacuum. As soon as it began, it ended and when the blonde's breathing regulated she noticed her back was pressed up against the far wall of the basement some 20 feet from where she and Faith had been standing watch. She groaned as she stood and looked around. Faith was still on her butt shaking her head to try and figure how they went from where she was standing to where she was sitting. Offering her hand, Buffy helped the brunette to her feet.

Buffy glanced over to where Willow and the demons were. The red head still sat Indian style in the center but there were light scorch marks where the bodies of the demons had lain. Taking a lungful of air her face scrunched at the smell of scorched ozone.

Willow grinned up at the two shell shocked slayers. "That was fun."

"Uh, Will, what was that?" Buffy asked dusting off her pants.

"What?" Willow asked confused, as she finished siphoning off excess energy.

"We'll start with easy Red, what the fuck just threw us 15 feet backwards?" Faith interjected before Buffy had a chance to clarify.

Willow shrugged. "Oh, uh." She giggled nervously and said, "Side effect?"

"Side effect? Was that supposed to happen?" Buffy asked.

"It happened when they got here or at least we can assume it did since that's what took us out to the lake in the first place, but it could have just been for the return trip."

"Ah, and the spell? I thought you worked in Latin?" Faith cocked her head to the side appearing truly puzzled by the recent casting.

"Portuguese." Willow kicked at the scorch mark closest to her and mumbled, "Hmmm."

"Why?" Buffy queried rolling her shoulders to take away some of the stiffness from the impact against the brick wall.

"Rio. I had to learn some of the language and it's way easier than Latin, but it's based in Latin. We all know I suck at Latin and my spells seem to work better."

Giles sat up and straightened his glasses before looking over to check on Dawn and Xander. Xander was helping Dawn to her feet as the watcher struggled to his. He then cast a cursory look over to where Serenity had been. He rubbed his temples to remove some of the tension being thrown back had caused. The ship was gone leaving a ring of scorched grass where it had been.

"That was most unexpected. Everyone alright?" Feeling that everything had gone off well, Giles smoothed out his clothes while Xander answered.

"Yep, sore, but good G-man."

"Fine, Giles. Do you know what that was?" Dawn asked as she looked down at her clothes. "Damn it, I'll never get these grass stains out."

"I think perhaps it was the spell ending. It would seem to fit." Giles was interrupted by Isa running over the hill.

"Mr. Giles, Xander, Dawn. Is everything alright? The house is in a bit of a state after that…"

"Mini-explosion?" Xander offered.


"Isa, radio in tell them that everything is fine and all is back to normal," Xander directed. The young girl was on her COM-Link before he finished. All three watched as she turned and sprinted back to the house.

"Ah, okay then, remind me not to do that again anytime soon. Whaddya think Dawnie, we get a good 15 feet in distance? So what's that a 10?"

Dawn looked over to where she thought they had been standing. "Seems about right, but our form was horrible, judges are weighing in and oh, 7.5."

They both laughed and snorted at the same time. "Well, those Brits are awful tough with the judging."

"Sure, sure. It's 'cuz of their tea intake." Dawn smirked and then looked pointedly at Giles.

Giles rolled his eyes at the two and began walking towards the school. "If you two would quit poking fun at the Brit and let's be on our way. We still have that body to tend to and I would like to check in with Willow, Buffy and Faith to see if there was anything out of the ordinary."

"You mean besides being knocked on your ass some distance away from where you originally were?" Xander's sarcasm was only noted by a slight backwards glance from Giles.

"Dawn, the body we found is in the holding freezer?" Giles asked making his way inside. They bypassed the kitchen and dining area heading straight for the infirmary.

"In the cooler. I don't have to touch it do I?" The disgust and nervousness evident in her tone.

"No, no. I'm just going to snap some photos and if Xander would be so kind as to fingerprint or at least try to fingerprint the victim, perhaps Willow or someone else could ID the man so that we may inform the proper authorities and family."

They had taken the long way back to the large walk-in cooler/freezer that was used for preservation. The path carried them around the infirmary and past the small ward used to house injured students and staff. On the way over, Xander had grabbed a camera and the supplies necessary to take the prints. Giles reached the far end of the hallway and stopped at the thick steel door that opened up the cooler. Turning to address the two with him he said, "Dawn, if you want, stay here. We will only be a moment."

Dawn nodded thankfully and took a seat to the left of the door.

As Giles opened the door, he turned to step in and was stopped by the slim figure of River Tam standing next to the body of the man they'd pulled from the caves. "Oh, dear Lord."

Willow was the first to turn and look as the basement door came flying open. The witch dropped the broom in her hand as River Tam became visible. "Oh Goddess." Her mind quickly went over the spell to see if there were any errors. Finding none, she turned her shocked gaze to Dawn.

"Giles, take the door off th…" Buffy stopped as she saw River standing between Xander and her old watcher. "Oh."

"G, B…" Faith's heart soared and crashed in the instant her gaze settled on River. "You…?"

"Are where I'm supposed to be for now." River smiled sheepishly at Faith and waved to Buffy and Willow.

Disregarding everything else, Faith dropped the dust pan in her hands and rushed to River. She scooped the young girl up and twirled her around ignoring the shocked expressions of the people around them. River giggled as Faith spun her around happy that the slayer didn't appear to be upset by her appearance. She held on tight and breathed in the Faith's scent.

As the shock wore off, Faith put River back on her feet, but held a firm grip on her hand. "What happened?"

Buffy quickly recovered from Faith's open display of affection and asked, "Yeah, anybody with an answer? Will?"

Willow's mouth opened and closed a few times in response, but no sound came out.

Tentatively, River raised her hand in response to Buffy's question. "I think maybe I can answer that."

"Cortex and Navsat are both operational, Sir. We're back." Zoe smiled over at Mal. He had control of the ship while Zoe checked the systems monitors once they got shot back through to their own time.

A weight lifted off the captain as he leaned back and engaged the auto-pilot. "Hey," he said sitting up. "You seen our River runnin' about? I ain't seen her since before we boarded."

"I saw her walk in right before we said goodbye to everyone. Maybe she's in her quarters. Could be she's upset," Zoë offered looking over one of the panels one last time before turning her attention fully to Mal.

Mal laced his fingers behind his head and went back to reclining in the seat, "Suppose so. Her and Faith seemed to get awful close. You don't think that she and Faith, uh, had…" Mal blushed at the thought then shook his head in a vain attempt to rid his mind of the images.

Simon ran up the steps to the bridge calling out, "Mal! Zoe! Have any of you seen River?"

"Why Doc, we were just talki..."

Mal was interrupted by the ships PA system coming to life. It crackled popped and hissed, then River's voice filled the ship. Mal and Zoe both sat up as they recognized who was speaking. Simon looked around and then remembered this is what happened the time that bounty hunter had tried to take River from him. He smiled at the memory and the way River had handled the situation.

"8 for 8. That's what those demons bargained for or with. We were a trade. They get access to this dimension while we get displaced in it. They had brought 8 here and needed 8 for that time. I'm not sure exactly how that works out, but it is. The 8th person is dead. The body they found in the caves and he couldn't come back anyhow. No name, no home, no future, dead. It shifted the balance, a ratio of 1 to 1 to be able to return to where we came from. They had 6 we had 7. I wasn't going to let anyone make that decision." River's voice rang clear throughout the entire ship. As her message played, the rest of the crew filed onto the bridge one by one.

"Goodbye's are hard, even harder when you know they're coming. I wasn't sure what to say or how to say the things that need to be said." River's voice had grown thick with emotion as she continued to speak. "You should hear this by the time it's too late to do anything but to move forward. We sacrifice for the one's we love and this is mine to you."

Simon's hand flew to his mouth as River's words registered in his mind. He was unaware when his legs gave out and his wife cradled him in her arms. The shock coursed through him moving quickly to disbelief then settled on pain and grief. After throwing his life away to rescue her, his sister had chosen to leave them and stay 500 years in the past. His mind spun at the thought that he would never again see the person he had risked everything for, for the last remaining blood tie he knew.

A choked sob came through the speakers and then River's voice cleared again, "Words are inadequate and non-sensical for messages like these, yet I feel the need to say something, anything to get you to be ok Simon. Sacrifice, something you know a lot about. I needed to do this for you, for all of you that have watched over me. You will always be my brother. You will always be with me. You gave me that gift, this gift of freedom and choice and showed me love in ways I thought had long since been taken away. Know I'm safe. Know I'm happy. Know that I love you all. Yes, even you Jayne."


Chapter 20 – After the Dust Settles

"You sure you like that there?" Mal asked as he placed the last of his things under the bed. After they returned, the crew stopped for a time on a rebuilt Haven to try and settle back into the swing of things. Mal had also wanted to give himself and his crew some time to grieve for the girl who had burrowed into a heart he felt didn't work anymore. But then again, here he was with Inara in their bunk, rearranging things and seeing to it that the woman he had wanted for as long as he had known her was happy with the new sleeping arrangements.

Inara looked to the curtain that she had hung and then back at Mal, "You don't like it there?"

"No, no it's fine really. Just lookin' to make sure you're all settled." Mal smiled reassuringly.

Inara nodded and then took a seat on the bed. She patted the spot right next to her and motioned for Mal to sit down. "It's fine really." As her lover sat down next to her, she took in the sight of her new living quarters. Mal had swapped with Zoë to get the bigger bunk so that he and Inara could have more space. Zoë seemed more than happy for the move and Inara noted that as Zoë carried the last of her stuff out of the room there was a bittersweet smile to her features that had become more common since Wash's death.

Now she and Mal occupied the space that seemed to carry the ghost of the love Zoë and Wash had shared and Inara was determined to do her best to honor the memory. She had even conceded to keeping a small set of dinosaurs that Wash had glued down on one of the dressers.

"Come back to me bao bei." Mal's soft voice cut through her reverie.

"Sorry. I was just…"

"Thinkin' 'bout Wash and this place." Mal plucked at the bedspread and sighed, "Don't rightly know if we did the right thing," he finished.

"Zoë insisted. She practically kicked us out of your bunk and shoved us in here. What were we to do?" She smiled up at the captain and then rested her head on his shoulder.

"That'd be it. Don't know what I'm gonna do with her yet."

"Because you can do anything with Zoe? She's more stubborn than you Mal."

The captain ran his fingers through his hair and shrugged, "She's not been right for awhile. Worries me somethin' fierce. There…seems to be a lot of change. Too much for me right now. Taking out of the equation Wash, Shepherd and the others. The weakening of the Alliance's hold on the 'Verse. Nothin' seems to hurt as much as River. I…no way for me to wrap my head around what the girl went and did."

Inara leaned back on the bed and pulled Mal down with her so that his head rested on her shoulder. Her voice was quiet and hushed as she thought out loud, "River knew Mal. She knew what she was doing and she was right in making the decision she did. What were we going to do stay there? All of us? Leave who behind?"

She felt Mal shrug again and then heard the smile in his voice, "Coulda left Jayne."

"And leave our friends with that monkey's go se? I think not."

"Suppose your right, but Simon ain't been right since."

"None of us have been right. We have lost an integral member of our group. River was important in one way or another to all of us. The only thing that is going to heal a wound like that is time." Inara's voice was resigned as she spoke. An air of sadness crept into her speech and infected her body as she slumped further in to the bed.

Mal twirled a strand of Inara's hair between his fingers, breathed her calming scent and silently agreed. The ache inside spread to places he didn't think he could hurt anymore, but River proved him wrong…again. Time heals he thought, but sometimes time takes too damn long.

Kaylee ran her fingers through her husband's soft hair as they lay naked on the engine room floor. Her overalls were bunched beneath them making a crude blanket and cushioning against the hard steel grating that made up the floor. She knew by the sound of his breathing that not only was he awake, but he was thinking of his sister. It had become common practice in the two weeks that they were home to talk about River. It always seemed to take place after they had made love and Kaylee idly wondered what about the sex made him slip into a deep brood.

"Si, where are you?" She whispered not wanting to startle him.

She felt the wry half smile form on her bare skin as he answered, "I was thinking…"

"About River."

"Surprisingly no. I was thinking about you and well, yes, about River too, but it was a good memory or at least a very embarrassing one. It was about the first time we made love here in the engine room."

The mechanic giggled and covered her mouth trying to suppress the embarrassment. River had ended up walking in on them and even though the mechanic was usually unflappable in regards to sex, that day she turned an obscene shade of red as River looked at them like you would animals in a zoo. Seemed to Kaylee all her best memories seemed to find her flat on her back in this room. "She's fine you know."

"I know, but it doesn't matter if I know. She's not here."

Kaylee frowned at the tone of her husband's voice and moved so that she could look him in the eye. "Simon. We miss her. Hell we all seem to have lost a piece of us, just like we did when Wash died, just like we did when Shepherd Book died, but River ain't dead. She's safe at least. She seemed to be happy there."

Simon took the hand that cradled his cheek and brought it up to his mouth placing a light kiss on the upturned palm. "I know that. I just…she should have said goodbye differently. She…"

"She shoula've what?"

"She shouldn't have left. We could have found another way back."

Unsure of how to answer, Kaylee's head softly hit the floor and she sighed out, "Maybe you're right, but I don't think it could've gone any other way.. You've been different since she left and you got the right to, but Simon for me, don't let a ghost destroy you. It ain't fair to you or to me. Be happy that at least she's out of the way of the Alliance."

Simon thought about what his wife had said. Was he letting River haunt him? It was becoming an obsession, the way of her departure. He stopped his mind and took in the sullen features of his wife. She was right. River haunted him. He needed to stop and focus on the things that were in his control. He had succeeded in what he set out to do. River was safe. He knew she was happy. He knew that the Alliance would never get their hands on his sister again. Acquiescing to his wife's wishes, he leaned up and placed a soft kiss on her lips then moved to the tip of her nose.

"As you wish. She is safe and we are too."

"I love you Si."

"Love you too Kaylee Tam." He smiled the best smile he could muster and began moving his way lazily down her body.

"What you think we're gonna get fer some of this fei wu?" Jayne asked Zoë as the two of them were finishing off inventorying the purchases from the trip to Earth That Was and stowing them away.

Zoë smiled over to Jayne, "'Nough that we might not have to worry about nothin' for a while. Inara seems to have a few contacts left that are willing to pay top coin for some of what we got. We'll all get our share."

"Good. Maybe then I can retire and get my pretty pi gu off this heap." Jayne's mouth clamped down on the cigar he held between his lips as he hoisted a crate and took it behind a set of steps.

"You gonna leave us Jayne Cobb?" Zoë turned to the man a look of disbelief on her face.

He shrugged in her direction, "Thought about it if the coin's good enough. 'Course I might die of boredom before I reach a ripe old age."

"Or someone may come lookin' to settle a score and you might die anyhow."

Jayne grinned wide at the First Mate, "That'd also be a good bet." He stopped his movements and turned his attention fully to Zoë. "I think about it ya know. Leavin', but can't seem to do it. Had a few opportunities that didn't feel right. I suspect I belong here. Bunch a misfits runnin' around in the Black, stickin' it to the Alliance. Got a good fit to it."

Zoë nodded, "It does doesn't it?" Her smile was genuine as she turned from the gunman and thought about the future. Giving it an honest thought this time. Not worrying about trying to make it from one day to the next. She thought maybe, just maybe, her motley crew of a family had a shot. Time would tell that much she was certain of. "Thinkin' maybe you should stick around Jayne. Interesting may have only just begun."

Xander balanced the pencil on his right index finger as he sat with his feet propped up on the control panel of the Comm Center. His first Friday night shift started an hour ago and he was bored out of his mind. The patrols had all returned at 1 am and nothing had been brewing in their neck of the woods. He kicked himself for agreeing to take over Kimmie's Friday shift for the month.

His attention snapped to the door as it swung open and the pencil he had been carefully balancing on his finger clattered to the floor along with his feet. He looked up with his good eye to see Kimmie in the doorway holding a basket that looked suspiciously like a picnic basket and a pizza box. Xander licked his lips as he smelled the doughy goodness that the wide flat box emitted.

Kimmie smiled brightly as she sauntered over to Xander. "Couldn't just leave you all alone here, it gets way too boring. That and Guilt. Been eatin' me up since we made the bet so, I figured I could make amends with an impromptu indoor faux picnic."

Kimmie's grin was infectious and Xander returned the smile ten fold. "All is forgiven if I can have a slice of that pizza you have in your hands."

Taking the hint, the slayer moved a few chairs out of the way and began to set up the area. Once she had situated the blanket, pizza, and basket she motioned for Xander to take a seat on the floor. As they settled in, she reached into the basket and produced two chilled beers. Xander's eye lit up and he gently took one of the offered bottles.

"So," the blonde started, "River's gonna be staying with us then?" Kimmie handed the man a plate with two slices of pizza on it.

Xander took what was offered and brought the pizza up to his nose. Licking his lips, he raised a slice in a toasting fashion and nodded. Thinking a minute before he answered the slayer's question, he said around a mouthful of pizza, "Yep. She's pretty handy. We were talking and she wants to train like a slayer. Faith wanted to take point and train her."

Kimmie nodded. "With Faith 'teaching' her, she should be up to speed in no time." The innuendo was obvious and Xander just shook his head in mock ignorance. "Oh, come on. With Buffy and Willow, which by the way all of the girls are happy about maybe Slayer Prime and The Witch can both loosen up a bit, and now River and Faith we're startin' to think you lot are putting Insta-Gay in our drinking water."

"Nope, none of that, At least I don't think. I'll have to check with Wills tho'. What about you?"

"Me?" Kimmie swallowed, "Me, I'm uh…I work too much." She gave the man a half smile and winked hoping he would take the hint.

The light danced in the girl's eyes and Xander took the opportunity. He leaned over and pressed their lips together. It was soft and warm and everything that he had been missing for quite some time. He pulled back and smiled wiping away some errant pizza grease that transferred onto her chin. He rubbed it away with the pad of his thumb and then leaned back as he finished.

"Ya know,." he drawled out, "used to be a girl had to show up naked in my room for me to get that she liked me."

"Now?" Kimmie grinned back leaning into the touch of his hand against her cheek and lips.

"Seems like all it takes is pizza, a good beer and the talk of insta-gay in the drinking water." His mouth quirked in a smile and he shied away from the playful smack Kimmie gave.

The room was shadowed with soft light from the lamp in the corner of Willow's room. As the light strained to reach her girlfriend's bed, Buffy listened to the ceiling fan softly whirring above and Willow's gentle breathing. The blonde lay curled in to her witch's side letting her wandering right hand roam gently over Willow's exposed hip.

"Willow?" asked Buffy lightly, hoping that if her girl was asleep the question wouldn't wake her.

"Hmm," Willow's sleepy voice drifted down to the blonde's ears.

"Thank you."

Willow's voice picked up as she queried, "For?"

"I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I heard what you said to Dawnie."

"Ah…you mad?"

"No. The opposite in fact. It was really sweet."

"I meant it. I don't." Willow stopped and tried to gather her thoughts before continuing. "Losing you seems impossible to me."

"Same here, Will. Same here."

"So what then?"

Buffy seemed to be caught off guard by the question, "What then what?"

"We had this talk in New Mexico. About the future, about what we were gonna do with ourselves."

"Ah that." Buffy shrugged then answered, "Long as you're there. I could join the circus."

"Hmm, Buffy in clown make up and a funny little car? It has potential," teased the redhead.

"I was thinkin' more of a tight rope walker, you can be the ringleader…"

"Ringmaster. Even if said ringmaster is a girl. It's ringmaster." Willow interrupted.

Buffy stuck her tongue out at the witch and continued, "And Xander can be the lion tamer."

"Now, you're just being silly, Xander would totally be the iron man person. Ya know, the one in the leopard skin outfit," giggled Willow.

"You can't even say that with a straight face. I'm right. Lion Tamer. He does so well with the other slayers, lions should be a breeze."

"They are way less vicious than newbies. 'Kay, so Xander's the lion tamer, Giles could be the clown and Dawnie…"

"Could be the performing monkey?" asked Buffy hopefully.

Willow sent a sour look to Buffy which she made sure the blonde saw. "No, she could be human pretzel girl. Don't know if she's that bendy though."

"Hmm." Buffy let the conversation die. It was Willow's supple voice that brought Buffy back from her thoughts.

"Buff, question for you."


"Anywhere, but here?"

Buffy's silence to such a simple question worried the redhead. She was about to tell her to forget it when Buffy started speaking again.

"For the first time in as long as I can remember, I don't want to be anywhere else." She looked up into her best friends eyes with a smile that stretched from ear to ear.

Once again, Faith found herself looking up at the moon. The first time she gazed up at the pale white rock, she was cursing it's inefficiency in providing light on her way to capture 6 demons that had brought her the woman she was now with. Tonight was different. Tonight there was no sadness, no anger at being denied someone she could speak openly with. Her heart was light with the knowledge that River Tam was staying.

She had her back firmly pressed against a medium sized boulder with her arms wrapped securely around the girl who had taken more of her heart than she had thought possible. River's easy breathing calmed her and Faith continued to star gaze with her new roommate. She still wasn't quite sure where they stood, but tonight seemed like the best opportunity to find out.

"Riv, you decide…" Faith, her voice uncertain, stopped. "We had a talk a while back; I just wanted to know if you thought about it at all?"

An unseen lazy smile spread over River's features and she nodded. "It seems that I want a lot of things right now, Faith and we did talk about a lot."

"We did, but I was…"

"You were asking about us," finished River.

"That'd be it." Her body tensed as River didn't answer right away. When River did finally speak, Faith felt like taking the question back.

"Us. It has a nice ring to it. It's what I want. It's part of the reason staying seemed so easy. I'm safer here than anywhere else. Everyone is nice and if I get a little crazy, they give me space. Here is good."

"So, that means you've figured out where we're headed then, 'cuz for the life of me I can't seem to get a hold on it."

River pulled Faith up so that their eyes met. She reached out and smoothed her friend's wrinkled, worried brow and her eye's shone with promise, "I told you, with you, here, is the only place I know where I'm needed."

She removed her hand and placed it over Faith's heart. "We can teach each other a lot Faith. I want to learn with you. New is weird and scary and I can't think of anyone else I'm willing to take those first steps with." River moved so that they were side by side. She rested her head on the slayer's shoulder and pointed up to a cluster of stars.

"I know it's not the same or even close, but that group there that look like a bright circle." River's finger pointed to a cluster of stars far overhead and continued, "It looks like some of the ones my brother and I used to look at from home. I was too young to appreciate it then. And now, well, or before, I was sailing in them." Her voice dropped to a soft whisper as she leaned into Faith, "It was an adventure. I can look at the stars any time and remember the then. This is a new adventure. Not the same, but not entirely different."

She turned her head to gaze into the deep brown eyes of her friend and concluded, "We've got a long way to go. The stars will shine, the demons will come, and time will move forward."

The smaller girl leaned up and placed a tender kiss on Faith's full lips. She pulled back and couldn't help the smirk from seeing the surprised expression Faith wore. River snuggled back into the shoulder pillow. Her gaze drifted heavenward. She thought about the future she could build with the woman next to her, and she smiled as the stars twinkled brightly against The Black.

The End

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